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College Savings

There's No Substitute for Hard Work

Each year I talk with hundreds of families about college financing. It is my favorite part of my job and the conversations are interesting, varied, and thought provoking. However, there are certain themes in these conversations that come up often. Some of these are reflective of the economy in a certain year or are reflective of families of a certain income. Some ring true and keep me up at night and some are myths that I take it upon myself to break by sharing the truth. (Think soap box!)

A complaint I hear often usually comes from a parent who is learning about the financial aid process, making a college decision, or trying to figure out how to pay the college bill and it sounds a bit like this: “As a family we have always tried to do the right thing. We haven’t lived lavishly and we have been saving for college education. Our expenses are high because we wanted to live in a town with a good school system and provide opportunities for our kids. My neighbors (or brother-in-law’s friend or cousin’s sister) haven’t saved at all and have lived way above their means and now their kids are going to get financial aid and my kids aren’t.”

I always feel badly when I hear someone struggling, worrying if they will be able to do right by their kids, questioning their choices. However, recently I realized I have something important to say back to these folks. And what I have to say comes from real long-term experience of working with thousands of families and helping them pay for higher education each year. Not only do I meet with the families who say these things to me. I meet with the neighbors too. And the brother-in-law’s friend and the cousin’s sister.

While we all know people in this world who seem to have a horseshoe or 4 leaf clover over their heads and things always turn out great for them, they are the exception, not the norm. It is the same as I tell students who say something to me such as, “Bill Gates didn’t finish college and look how rich he is.” Is it possible to drop out of college and become one of the richest people in the world? Yes. Likely? No. Does it happen to most people? No.

There probably are a few people out there who have made really bad, irresponsible decisions and have somehow landed in a good place with college financing. Does it happen to most people? No.
So what I’d say to the folks who have been working hard and doing their best is that they are going to be much better off than families who haven’t done that. Feel good about the planning you have done to provide for your children. Let them know how hard you’ve worked, and why you’ve made the decisions you have. Prepare them for life which we know isn’t easy. You should be very proud.
Families who haven’t made wise decisions are going to struggle even more with this college financing process. Decisions will be harder, choices will be fewer and debt will be higher. It’s a fact. I’ve met them.

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